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Six of the world’s nine Planetary Boundaries have been breached

© Christopher FarberDr Johan Rockstrom at launch of Planetary Boundaries Framework.
Dr Johan Rockstrom at launch of Planetary Boundaries Framework.

A group of global leaders have come together to urge a new approach to measurement and risk management for global development, as the science shows that many planetary boundaries – maintenance of which ensure planetary equilibrium – have been breached.

  • Six of the nine planetary boundaries required to maintain asystems functioning space for humanity to live have been breached.
  • The report highlighting the problem is the third assessment of the status of biodiversity, land system change, pollution and ocean acidification. – it will now be updated every year to drive more effective global decision making.
  • Given that the impacts of extreme weather are increasing faster and causing more disruption than predicted, this is a warning that cannot be ignored.

Former President Mary Robinson, Former President Juan Manuel Santos, Ayisha Siddiqa, Robert Redford, Sylvia Earle, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Farwiza Farhan are amongst the 14 global leaders calling for governments, the UN, and multilaterals to commit to a whole-planet approach to restoring the stability of the Earth.

Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland, Chair of the Elders, and founding member of the Planetary Guardians, said: “This year has seen heatwaves, floods and hurricanes destroy communities across the globe, hitting hardest the most vulnerable who have not caused the problems. Humanity is putting the stability of the entire planet at risk. The urgency is clear. Now we must invest in the science, heed its warnings, and collectively act.”

The report, Planetary Boundaries 3.0, is the third major assessment of the Planetary Boundaries framework, the pioneering analysis developed by 29 leading global scientists from eight countries initially introduced in 2009. It is the first to provide a complete check-up of all nine processes and systems that maintain the stability and resilience of the planet.

What are the planetary boundaries?

The systems that sustain human life and economic operations are complex and interconnected and it’s increasingly apparent that any failure to address the underlying scientific challenges could massively increase the risk of disaster.

The Planetary Boundaries framework, introduced in 2009, identifies guardrails for humanity’s impacts on the global environment. Current scientific understanding suggests respecting these guardrails would minimise the risk of human activities triggering a dramatic and potentially irreversible change in global environmental conditions.

To be relevant, the Planetary Boundaries framework must be updated regularly to include the newest scientific understanding of Earth system processes and the impact of human activities upon them. That is now happening and countries, from New Zealand to Sweden and the Netherlands are now looking at how they can use the Framework to inform decision making. Companies including Walmart and Unilever are exploring how they can use the framework to translate the hard science into useful decision making tools.

Mary Robinson pointed out that she’s involved in a project in Ukraine to look at accountability and responsibility, understand the depth of the environmental and societal damage done by the war and use the Planetary Boundaries Framework to build back in the region.

What next?

There is 15 years of science supporting the development of the Planetary Boundaries, and the launch of the Planetary Guardians project reflects both a maturity point in the science and in decision making. There is a relevance today because the evidence is showing the necessity of this approach to development. The science needs to be translated into something that can be used practically to guide investment and decision making.

Professor Johan Rockström, co-founder of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and lead developer on the creation of the Planetary Boundaries, said: “Science is clear, we are putting the stability of the entire planet at risk. There is no chance to solve the climate crisis, or ensure delivery on the Sustainable Development Goals, unless we urgently turn the tide on all nine Planetary Boundary processes.

He continued: “World development and human justice are now on the line, calling for decisive and collective action to avert life threatening conditions and in the long-term secure a liveable planet as we know it. The Planetary Guardians initiative seeks to elevate the science, catalyse systems change, and spark a movement to safeguard the global commons and to tackle the biggest crisis we have ever faced.”

Effective action requires countries, investors and companies to address challenges holistically

This new research advances the scientific understanding of what is needed for a safe planet. Climate is one of the six boundaries breached, but what the research shows is that we cannot look at carbon in isolation, and we need to respect all the other boundaries, taking a whole Earth approach.

Continuing to breach the biosphere boundaries of biodiversity, land, water and nutrients can, on their own, cause a breaching of the 1.5°C climate boundary, even if the world phases out fossil-fuels in time.  The Earth is an interconnected system and we have now entered the danger zone, undermining Earth’s resilience, and consequently human wellbeing.

What the report highlights is that it’s critical to elevate and advance the science to ensure we can better identify priorities and understand the interactions between boundaries to avoid tipping points.

Using the Amazon rainforest as an example, which is already at 17% forest loss, Professor Rockström warns that a mix of 1.3 degrees Celsius warming and 20% forest decline might trigger an irreversible tipping point, underscoring the urgent need for enhanced, real-time scientific monitoring.

It’s been proven that collective action can work – as in the way the hold in the ozone layer was addressed.  That was a planetary boundaries that was breached, and then addressed. Through collective implementation of the Montreal Protocol, founded in scientific research, around 99% of ozone-depleting substances have been phased out and the ozone layer is expected to largely heal by the mid-2060s.

What do the Planetary Guardians want to see?

  • The Planetary Boundaries framework to be used as a measurement and risk framework for global coordination by the UN Security Council, the G7 and G20, multilaterals, and governments to urgently prioritize bringing us out of a planetary danger zone, including accountability to existing agreements such as the High Seas Treaty, the Paris Agreement, and the Global Biodiversity Agreement.
  •  Increased investment in planetary science and solutions to bring the six breached boundaries into a safe zone, with a goal of ensuring that all nine Planetary Boundaries stay in the safe zone.
  • Reform the international financial architecture to take a planetary view, to consider science and the true value of nature, and to significantly increase funding for adaptation, mitigation, and development without increasing the debt burden on emerging economies.
  • Support the creation of science-based targets for all nine boundaries and encourage disclosures by businesses and governments, including transparency of environmentally harmful subsidies (currently estimated to be valued at $1.8 trillion per annum).
  • Reform legal structures so that ecocide, Indigenous rights, and intergenerational rights are essential considerations to maintain a safe, healthy planet, acknowledging that humans are a part of nature and are dependent on nature for our very existence.

Annually, the Guardians plans to host a State of the Planet event to unveil a science based Planetary Boundary Health Check and to share solution pathways for a stable and resilient planet. By providing a regular, comprehensive assessment of the state of the Earth system, on an annual basis, the group believes that it will be possible to better monitor changes, gauge risks, identify urgent actions, develop solutions, and assess our progress in maintaining a safe operating space for humanity.

The Planetary Guardians include Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and Juan Manuel Santos, former President of Colombia. They are joined by a growing number of leaders, including Sunita Narain, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Ayisha Siddiqa, Dr. Ralph Chami, Farwiza Farhan, Dr. Naoko Ishii, Xiye Bastida, Dr. Jane Goodall DBE, Dr. David Suzuki, Hiro Mizuno, and Robert Redford. This diverse and global collective is committed to listening to the science, the wisdom of Indigenous peoples, and the planet to learn how to thrive in partnership with each other and the natural systems that keep us alive.

SG Take

There is an increasing body of scientific work highlighting the incredible risks being taken if these boundary breaches are not addressed. We know that failures to address the impacts of climate change multiplies risk factors in multiple areas from economic activity to human health.

Having a planetary boundaries framework that is updated every 12 months, rather than the IPCC’s seven year cycle, could be the difference needed to encourage policy makers and investors, as well as corporations and individuals, to make more positive choices.

At the same time, it marks a powerful shift away from insisting that individuals are responsible for addressing the planetary crisis and puts it firmly back where it belongs – at the feet of a broken system.

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